How material comforts make us politically docile.

November 5, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

Here’s an excerpt from Paul Krugman’s Common Dreams essay, “Wobbled by Wealth.”

One of the saddest stories I tell in my book is that of Al Smith, the great reformist governor of New York, who gradually turned into a narrow-minded economic conservative and bitter critic of F.D.R. H. L. Mencken explained it thusly: “His association with the rich has apparently wobbled him and changed him. He has become a golf player.”

How do you change the system as a poor person looking in from the outside?  You likely don’t. Because you lack money, you don’t have access to the deep structures of power.  For instance, what chance do people who march on Washington have of implementing universal health care?  They don’t have a chance, because they have no money to reach the politicians who can really make a difference. 

To make fundamental changes to the system, you need more than protesters.  To really change the system, you need a large band of committed insiders who are willing to buck the system, even at their own expense.  How often do you find such a committed insider?  Not every day.  How often do you find a critical mass of knowledgeable and committed insiders ready and willing to tip over an established institution that employs them?  Almost never.

Why would that be?  I suspect that it’s because so many of us who successfully “work our way up” eventually succumb to the system (just like Al Smith).  How many people want to believe that they are progressives, but really aren’t anymore?  Most of them have succumbed to expensive temptations.  These temptations are everywhere for anyone who has accrued any wealth and power.  You want—and eventually “need”—the nice house, clothes, amusements, and retirement.  It actually turns out that no amount of money will ever be enough for you.

If that is not bad enough, stir children into the mix.  Then you have the world’s best excuse for being abjectly self-centered as a family.  You can justify very expensive schools, vacations “for the kids”, and an even bigger house “for the kids.”  It is true that children make you more conscious of our country’s economic, social and moral failings.  But having children also makes it much less likely to risk the financial security he or she has in order to buck the system.  Anyone who’s willing to lose his or her good job and risk making only 1/2 of that nice salary to do some social justice, raise your hand!  Ah, I do see a couple hands, but not many.  The ones with the most promise are those social-justice minded spouses of some of those encrusted capitalists.  Interesting.

What this shows me is that most people, and this includes most people with children, have positioned themselves such that they are not willing to take social stands that are economically detrimental to themselves.   They won’t do it (they say they “can’t do it).  As most people see it, they won’t (can’t) bite off their own arm to help their extended community.

Poor people can’t reform the system (for the most part) because they are cut off from the power base that runs the system.  That power base, in these especially crass times, understands only money.  On the other hand, too many well-intentioned financially successful people succumb to the temptations of the money world and are thus not willing to make any moves that jeopardize their 401K’s, etc.  That leaves the well-entrenched immoral and amoral to step up to do serious self-sacrificing for the benefit of the poor and disenfranchised.  I’m not holding my breath. 

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Consumerism, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. I suspect it's more sinister and deep-rooted than being seduced material comforts. I have known several people (some quite close to me) of the generation that saw civil rights as an issue become reality. At the time of Johnson's sweeping reforms, they were all open-minded reformers, but many later became close-minded bigots. It took me a while to understand the psychology. It has to do with the initial conception of what they thought they were doing.

    See, they thought that if not for the barriers of injustice, all those poor black people would be EXACTLY like them. When it turned out that this was not the result—due to factors they never considered—their reaction was to feel cheated. They had worked so hard and yet the result was not what they expected. So the liberated became "undeserving."

    Perverse,yes, but I think telling. People like Al Smith probably did not wish to help the "unwashed"—he believed they were just like him, he who had aspirations to be one of the elite, and all that was required to accomplish that was a tweak in the economic system here and there. When it turned out that most people are like themselves and not like him, well…

    It's a species of blame the victim.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Going from dirt poor to filthy rich involves hard work, and an inordinate amount of dumb luck. On the other hand, going from moderately wealthy to filthy rich involves family connections and a complete conviction that the laws are only for the poor.

  3. Artemis says:

    Last night I watched a special on Carol Burnett, aired on our local PBS station. I grew up on Carol. I wanted to be Carol. She was funny, she was bright, and EVERYBODY loved her. What I did not know was that she grew up in an alcoholic family, in Texas, and that they were poor as a result of the drinking. She had a younger sister, and she was primarily raised by her grandmother (who apparently did not drink). After Carol established herself as a highly regarded variety show host, actress, and singer, she rescued her younger sister from the life she herself had escaped, thus using her success as a means to "give back".

    Not everyone who goes from rags to riches becomes selfish and self-serving. I would love to hear from folks as to what it is that makes the difference (I of course have some ideas). What causes some to "give back" and others to make excuses? The answers might give insight into what we need to change the deeply-entrenched political/cultural system that exists in this country today.. the one that is erasing the middle class and keeping complacency in place for the rich, and hopelessness in place for the poor.

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